The relationship between federal and state laws in the U.S. is surprisingly complicated. Sometimes state and federal laws clash. Sometimes the federal government has to persuade state governments to enact certain laws. Rarely is the relationship as simple as federal trumps state. In many ways it’s a good system. The U.S. is geographically and culturally quite diverse, and the federal system we have helps ensure that the cultural and political norms of one region don’t overshadow the norms of another. However, as it’s a system that was created by people, it’s not perfect. There is one aspect to our system that I wish was more national instead of federal, and that is with regards to civil rights.
Historically, civil rights issues have started at the state level and only slowly made their way to the federal level. Slavery, women’s suffrage, Jim Crow laws and interracial marriage all started out as issues left up to the individual states to work out. Presidents and other federal representatives are often initially hesitant to announce their position on these issues. Then they might make their own personal feelings known, but they will still firmly place responsibility at the hands of individual states. It’s only after a great deal of political action and lobbying that they finally come around to admitting that the issue should be addressed on the federal level and taken out of states’ hands. Woodrow Wilson’s position on women’s suffrage is a prime example of this. He hedged around actually voicing support for a national amendment until, finally, in 1918 when he supported the 19th Amendment.
I’d include Obama’s position on same-sex marriage as another example of a President shuffling responsibility for civil rights onto the individual states. On Wednesday, Obama became the first sitting President to voice support for same-sex marriage, sort of. What a lot of news outlets failed to report on is the fact that he mentions it’s only his personal opinion. He still thinks individual states should be able to decide whether they want to make it legal or not on their own. The buck, apparently, stops at state government.
The argument, so I’ve been told, is that marriage has always been a state issue, and so the federal government has no business interfering. Well, I call bullshit on that. What was Loving v. Virginia if not the federal government imposing itself onto state laws regarding marriage? Let’s go back even further. What was Reynolds v. United States if not the federal government butting its head into marriage law, and arguably into religious freedom too? Even same-sex marriage hasn’t always been a state issue. DOMA itself is an example of the federal government legislating marriage, same-sex marriage specifically. What’s more, all of that doesn’t even take into account the 1,000+ federal rights and privileges that are associated with marital status.
So, no, marriage is not a state issue. It’s a national issue, and what’s more it’s a civil rights issue. I think it’s time that the U.S. recognized that and started treating it as such.
– AP Photo